This week's "So You Want to Read YA?" series comes from editor and author Brian Farrey.
Brian Farrey is the acquiring editor for Flux, the young adult imprint of Llewellyn Worldwide. The opinions he expresses here are from his own demented mind and not necessarily shared by his employer. Brian is also the author of the 2012 Stonewall Honor Book, WITH OR WITHOUT YOU, and the forthcoming middle grade fantasy, THE VENGEKEEP PROPHECIES. He tweets @BrianFarrey and sometimes remembers to blog at brianfarreybooks.com.
TO WRITE YA, YOU MUST READ YA
Check your watches. We’re almost due.
See, it happens every few years. Someone shops JANE EYRE (or some other classic masterpiece of literature) to publishing houses, collects a slurry of rejections, then promptly denounces editors as being “out of touch” because they clearly couldn’t recognize good writing when they saw it.
Or maybe the editors did recognize it because, you know, we really weren’t born yesterday. But I digress.
The point this person is trying to make is that if a beloved book which is still in print and selling today can’t pass muster with editors, then these editors obviously don’t know what they’re doing or what appeals to audiences.
Ah. But we do. We know what appealed to 19th century audiences, when JANE EYRE was all the rage. And we know what appeals to 21st century readers (the ones we’re trying to reach), which more often than not isn’t Jane Eyre. (Clarification: Obviously, yes, many people still read and enjoy Bronte but work with me…)
Recently, Dystel and Goderich agent Michael Bourret and HarperCollins editor Molly O’Neill posted a joint blog discussion on what middle grade is. In that post, Michael said:
What worked years ago probably doesn’t work now–trends and tastes change. .. Classic books sell because they are classics, and I would argue that many of them would not find an audience today.
Now, granted, I’m here to talk about young adult books BUT what Michael says applies across the board. (Please read the aforementioned blog post. Chock full of great info for writers in general.) Any time I speak at a conference, I convey one very important point: if you want to write YA, you need to read YA. Plain and simple. You need to understand the market. To do that, you need to read books that were written in the last five years.
I can spot someone who hasn’t done their homework. It’s like a beacon. Their query will include one of two red flag phrases: they will invoke “Nancy Drew” or they’ll talk about wanting to “write books like the ones I fell in love with when I was a kid.” Now, to be clear, there is nothing wrong with letting your favorite childhood books inspire you. I dare you to find a single successful writer who wasn’t called to the cause by a book that made them want to be a writer. But, there’s a difference between being inspired to write by certain books and attempting to replicate the cadence and themes of dated material. Depending on when you were a child, tastes have more than likely changed quite a bit.
Nancy Drew, like JANE EYRE, wouldn’t work today. You know how I know that? Because even Nancy has gotten with the times. Compare a Nancy Drew book that has come out in the past couple years with one that was written in the ‘30s. Nancy had to up her game. She doesn’t sound the same, she doesn’t get into the same kind of scrapes.
With all this in mind, I’m here to talk about what makes contemporary YA contemporary and how it differs from the books we see through the tinted lens of nostalgia. I’d like to recommend three titles to read that I think show not only where YA is today but also where it’s going. If you’re interested in writing publishable YA, give these books a looksee to get a feel for what’s possible.
- THE MARBURY LENS—Andrew Smith is one of my very favorite authors writing today. I should add the disclaimer that, by nature, I like a little darkness in my books, especially my YA. Give me an unhappy or ambiguous conclusion over a nice, tidy, all-is-well ending any day. I want what I read to leave me with questions. Andrew does that. THE MARBURY LENS left me unsettled for weeks. OK, maybe dark and twisted isn’t your thang. That’s fine. The important thing (well, one of the important things) to get from reading this book isn’t the darkness but the innovative narrative structure and technique. Andrew’s storytelling isn’t linear, and that’s one of the things that makes it unique. When I read this, I thought, “I can’t point to another book and say ‘This is just like this person.’” The style and voice were unique and fresh.
Another writer who plays with narrative technique is A.S. King (in her Printz honor book, PLEASE IGNORE VERA DIETZ, you get the point of view of a pagoda). The result of this sort of narrative experimentation is something wholly original. (WARNING: This is one of those “you have to know the rules before you can break them” kind of things. Don’t throw in a weird narrative structure just to be different. It needs its own set of rules and they need to make sense.) That’s the danger of wanting to write Nancy Drew or nostalgia books. It’s not your voice and there’s nothing new about it. You’ve probably heard that, to pitch your book, it’s a good idea to say, “It’s just like Author X!” But, in all sincerity, I say: to stand out, you can’t write like anyone else.2. WHAT I SAW AND HOW I LIED—Just because you couldn’t pass JANE EYRE off as your own work (really, you didn’t think I’d notice?) doesn’t mean you can’t write a period piece. But the number one mistake I see in period YA is an attempt to mimic the writing style of the period. If you’re writing something set in Victorian London, teens will run screaming if you go all Miss Havisham on them. What I like about Judy Blundell’s book is that she balances the language of the time (post WWII) with contemporary syntax and cadences. This is what I call “period light” language. Judy does small things to suggest the time (sparsely used jargon and formalities) but she doesn’t over inundate the book with it. Libba Bray’s Gemma Doyle books are another good example of “period light” language. There’s a gentle formality to the dialogue that emulates the Victorian cadences without turning into Dickens. Dickens was fine for his time but it comes off stilted, unrealistic, and—worst of all—distracting today. For me, this is the number one sign someone is trying too hard to sound period. The writing starts to sound like Data on STAR TREK. When you’re writing period dialogue, take a deep breath and give yourself permission to use contractions.3. SPLIT—When you compare YA written in the past five years with something that was written, say, forty or fifty years ago, one of the biggest differences you’ll notice is voice. (To clarify: technically, YA as we know it didn’t exist forty or fifty years ago. But that’s a different story. For now, work with me.) Voice is so, so important to YA and it’s so, so hard to nail. It’s the summation of many factors: syntax, cadence, intelligence, point of view, time period, and vocabulary, just to name a few. It’s so elusive—and approached so subjectively by each writer—that many people acknowledge that you just know when you’re reading a good voice. Voice in contemporary YA often feels more intimate, more visceral.In SPLIT, Swati Avasthi ‘s voice for Jace is pitch perfect. He is at once simple and complex. He is at ease and deeply troubled. He has his head screwed on straight and yet he’s ready to implode at any given moment. For me, the best contemporary YA is about conveying depth with everything. Characters work on different levels, as do the environments/world they inhabit. And a strong voice becomes a paintbrush capable of painting wide strokes when necessary, fine points that counter the wide strokes, and providing almost imperceptible color gradients that add nuance on both the macro and micro level. You should also check out Blythe Woolston’s THE FREAK OBSERVER. Loa’s voice is in many ways the antithesis of Jace but just as layered: fragile but resilient, honest but guarded. If I could assign homework for this blog post, it would be to read these two books and write a dissertation comparing/contrasting the voices used. (Have it on my desk by Monday.)Of course, I need to close with a few CYA comments. First of all, none of this should be read as YOU MUST DO THIS OR YOU WILL NEVER BE PUBLISHED AND SMALL CHILDREN WILL TRAVEL FOR MILES MERELY TO STAND ON YOUR DOORSTEP AND CHANT INSULTS AT YOU AND YOUR FAMILY. Do your own thing but forewarned is forearmed so know where you stand in the market.Similarly, I’m not saying These are the kind of books you should write if you want to get published. Far from it. My message here is These books give you a really good idea of what’s possible with modern YA fiction—and what works in modern YA fiction—and convey the feel you should be shooting for.I could go on and recommend other books but these three are a good place to start. Yes, there are plenty of current books that are nothing like the ones I’ve mentioned here. But, I promise, they all latch on to key elements of what makes a successful contemporary book. Look, it’s not 1850 anymore. It’s not 1950 anymore. Nostalgia is one thing but why repeat the past when you can be totally original?So, check your watches. We’re also due for another hatchet job on YA in some major newspaper. You know, claiming that YA is “too dark and depressing.” Whatever. That’s a rant for a whole other blog post.